FORT MYERS, Fla. — As a reminder of how the best laid offseason plans for a pitching rotation can splinter like a broken No. 2 pencil, all the Red Sox had to do was look across the field at JetBlue Park on Monday at the New York Mets.
The Mets had recovering ace Matt Harvey, working his way back after missing the entire 2014 season because of Tommy John surgery, on the mound. The same day the Mets learned that another promising young pitcher, Zack Wheeler, had a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow and was headed for season-ending Tommy John surgery. With the epidemic of arm injuries in major league baseball, you would think clubs would start getting two-for-one coupons on the dreaded procedure.
The Red Sox had an injury scare of their own when starter Joe Kelly was removed from the game with two outs in the third after throwing one pitch to Anthony Recker. Kelly and Red Sox manager John Farrell said it was biceps tightness/soreness and downplayed its seriousness.
Yet, it highlighted the single biggest unknown facing the 2015 Red Sox — do they have a starting rotation that is built to last or just built for another appearance in last place in the American League East? The projected rotation of Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson, Wade Miley, and Kelly contains questions about high-end ability and long-term durability.
How many innings the Sox can wring out of the quintet will go a long way in determining their season.
The last two days have not exactly been encouraging for the Red Sox’ rotation renovation. On Sunday, Masterson and Miley both got boxed around against the Phillies. Masterson allowed six earned runs and two home runs in 3⅓ innings. Miley surrendered six hits and four runs in four innings.
Despite being handcuffed by a barking biceps, Kelly actually lowered his spring training earned run average to 11.05, allowing three runs on seven hits in 2⅔ innings.
The Mets bats mimicked the percussion section of an orchestra, but Kelly had a handicap.
“It’s something that I went out there during the game, and I didn’t think it was a big deal,” said Kelly, who first felt biceps tightness warming up pregame. “It just started affecting the way the ball was coming out of my hand. I couldn’t spin the ball. I could throw a changeup and fastball and pretty soon it got to just fastball. It was a little bit inconsistent coming out of my hand and prevented me from making pitches that I needed to make.”
Farrell was asked if he was concerned about his starters, given the last two days.
“No, there is a process we have to go through. We can’t skip any steps along the way,” said Farrell, who cited this as the time of year pitchers experience dead arms. “We have to get the appropriate number of innings and up and down within an individual outing and build up their pitch count. We’re in the middle of that right now.”
That might be true, but this is the time of year when any concerns get swept into the shadows created by the sunny environs of spring training and the sunny outlook for a fresh season. Those concerns usually have a way of re-emerging once the games get real.
Everyone around the Sox knows that the revamping of the lineup with high-priced hitters Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval won’t mean a thing if the Sox don’t pitch better than they did in 2014.
Boston was 26th in major league baseball last season in starters’ ERA (4.36), including more than half a season of Jon Lester and John Lackey.
Ace or no ace, racking up innings from starters is important.
Both of the teams that advanced to the World Series last year were in the top 10 in the majors in innings pitched by starters. The world champion San Francisco Giants ranked 10th (977 innings) and the Kansas City Royals were eighth (986⅔ ).
The Red Sox ranked a surprising 13th last season with 970⅓ innings from their starters, but there is a difference between just getting innings and getting quality innings.
That’s where there is some solve-for-x in the Red Sox rotation.
Buchholz has earned a reputation for fragility and season-to-season inconsistency that makes him less predictable than a Lady Gaga outfit. The 26-year-old Kelly is a tantalizing talent, but the most innings he has pitched in the big leagues is 124 in 2013.
Masterson had been an admirably durable pitcher until bad habits from a 2013 oblique injury and a nagging knee injury last season conspired to limit his effectiveness and innings. The Sox believe he can recapture his All-Star form, and he looked good in his first two spring outings.
On the positive side, Miley has topped 200 innings in each of the last two seasons. Porcello has a track record of reliability, including four straight seasons with 30 or more games and double-digit wins in all six of his big league seasons.
The good news for the Red Sox is that they’re not the only ones in the AL East with concerns regarding their rotation.
The Tampa Bay Rays don’t expect Drew Smyly to be able to make his first start of the regular season because of shoulder tendinitis. The Rays also know they won’t have lefty Matt Moore, who is coming back from Tommy John surgery, until June. The Toronto Blue Jays already lost Marcus Stroman to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The Yankees are praying that Masahiro Tanaka can make it through the season with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow.
The Sox have built a rotation designed to induce a high rate of ground balls, but starting pitching is still the primary grounds for concern in 2015.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.